‘Thank you all for coming out on a Thursday night to talk about love’, said Leena Norms, host of the Gower Street Waterstones love poetry talk on 9th February 2023. The Gower Street Gallery — an event space tucked into the downstairs of London’s best Waterstones — was packed full. With wine glasses and romantic quote postcards in hand, we waited to hear poets Nikita Gill, Leo Boix, and Andrew McMillan discuss their introductions for the new Vintage Classics series on love poetry — the genre’s most popular subject.
Norms began by asking the panel about their love story with poetry. Was it love at first sight, a teenage crush, or enemies to lovers? Nikita Gill and Leo Boix were introduced to poetry from an early age, as was Andrew McMillan, but instead of being immediately fixated like Gill and Boix, McMillan became enamoured when he read Thom Gunn at the age of sixteen. (I know the feeling as a fellow queer poet, to finally see someone represent that part of you on the page.) In a similar representational moment, Boix always loved reading Latin American poets as a child, and he has now written an introduction for the new edition of Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.
Tasked with introducing the earliest writers in the Love Poetry series, Gill discussed Izumi Shikibu and Ono no Komachi, ninth- and tenth-century women poets in the Heian court during Japan’s ‘Golden Age’ of literature. The Ink Dark Moon is translated by Jane Hirshfield and described by Gill as ‘humorous, sassy, and sexy’, but also revolutionary. With their tanka poems of five lines, these writers illustrated the sexual freedom that aristocratic women had at the time, and their succinct portrayals of desire are still striking over one thousand years later.
Gill is especially interested in preserving women’s art. Her great-grandmother was a poet, but when she died, Gill’s grandfather tossed out her precious box of poems without a second thought. Gill stated that this sense of loss was the catalyst for her own writing — the impetus to ensure that more women’s voices can be heard. Although Gill discussed how not all women’s art can be preserved in the same way, since many traditional art forms cannot even be put on paper but only passed down through words and actions, it is vital that we continue to discover ‘new old’ poetry like these Japanese women writers. Moreover, we should celebrate poets whilst they are alive, Gill stressed. Hold your disdain for Tumblr poets who write similar short poems about yearning, because young women’s works often end up becoming classics. Furthermore, as a ‘self-confessed social media poet’, Gill reminded us how the internet helps preserve writing more than ever before. Sometimes, sometimes, it can be a crucial resource.
Andrew McMillan had perhaps the most intimidating introduction to write for Shakespeare’s Sonnets — the ‘OG Midlander’, in Norms’s words. McMillan sought to make Shakespeare more human than legend, giving equal attention to lesser-known sonnets that do not ‘register in the public imagination’ in the same way as ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’. McMillan described the sonnets as Shakespeare ‘striking matches’ — some are OK, some are great, and some are ‘genius’. He certainly had the knack of it after writing 154 of them, but McMillan’s introduction is not addressed to the Shakespeare scholars that know his work inside and out.
Instead, McMillan focused on the power of the sonnet form itself. The conventional sonnet of fourteen iambic pentameter lines seems extremely rigid but is in fact the perfect vessel to create tension against the ‘angst’ and ‘unbridled passion’ in Shakespeare’s work. Thus, the sonnet prevails today, particularly with poets such as Terrance Hayes creating the ‘American sonnet’ in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. In parallel, Jericho Brown has ‘gutted’ the sonnet to create a new form called the ‘duplex’, a mixture of sonnet and ghazal that aims to challenge the tyranny of the white literary canon. The sonnet holds such influence that McMillan pointed out how thirteen, fifteen, or even twelve-line poems will always be ‘haunted’ by the fourteen lines that linger in our minds. It is no wonder, then, that the sonnet is an ‘endlessly engaging and malleable’ form continually being ‘revitalised’, whether through breaking its rules, or re-exploring work by the ‘OGs’. It is much more than simply a way to express love.
Leo Boix also found it daunting to introduce Pablo Neruda, a poet whose depictions of young love have had profound universal and personal impact. Boix described these poems as ‘transgressive, highly political, and sensual’, explaining how he read Neruda’s depictions of women’s bodies with a queer lens to provide new light on how desire affects us all. Neruda is known as ‘the Walt Whitman of Latin America’, and when Boix read out one of his poems in both Spanish and English, the heightened emotions of longing were tangible even not initially understood. As both a poet and translator, Boix recounted how translating poetry is an act of love itself. You have to get so close to the original, and you make choices depending on what you are drawn to. For example, W.S. Merwin, the translator of this collection, was more interested in Neruda’s imagery than his rhythm. Boix, on the other hand, understands how Spanish is intrinsically musical — ‘in English there are fewer words…we really do speak more in Spanish…it just sounds romantic’. Thus, the bilingual Vintage Classics edition underlines the bridge between languages that is carefully crafted with love.
The poets also discussed widespread poetry misconceptions, especially since love is such a common theme and yet so often misunderstood. McMillan explained that poetry is not ‘elsewhere’ or unattainable to anyone — poetry is nowhere except where you live. Places like London, the Lake District, or the landscapes of Chile are only ‘poetic’ because people lived there and wrote about it. There should not be any hierarchy of place, voice, or accent. Likewise, Boix rebuffed the myth that poetry is inaccessible or difficult. The more you read it, the more you can understand, and it is incredibly rewarding. Norms made a great point that you in fact get ‘more for your money’ with poetry, since you can read it repeatedly and receive something new each time. It was encouraging to remember this, since I frequently grimace at the £10 price mark for a thin book of poems — it seems frightening, but there is so much inside poetry, arguably an endless amount. Gill also rejected how people believe that poetry should ‘look a certain way’. I think that the variety of love poems in the Vintage Classics collection — from the tanka by Heian period women poets, to Shakespeare’s sonnets and Neruda’s liberating writing — proves this in itself.
After all, love is a timeless and indelible theme. If February as the month of love is a misconception, too, defined by the confines of capitalism, then perhaps poetry can connect us all more authentically. With regard to nearby Valentine’s Day, the poets discussed whether sharing love poetry is serious or frivolous. Gill posited that if someone quoted Izumi Shikibu to her, it would be like a ‘saucy slide into her DMs’. Meanwhile, McMillan suggested that you should only give your partner a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets ‘about ten years in’. In this way, love poetry can become a cliché — its ubiquity can threaten to undermine its intensity. However, as this event demonstrated, the room was full of people ready to learn more about love poetry on a Thursday night. We cannot help coming back to love — and poetry helps connect us through our devotion.
Edited by Holly Cornall, Literature Editor